In the bad early days before the Truck Acts, the "butty" or "gaffer", a middleman who contracted with the mining company to deliver an agreed tonnage of coal to the pithead, hiring and paying his own labour, often conducted his business as a profitable adjunct to other activities, administering to the coalfield as merchant, insurer or brothel-keeper and, as "butty", finding wages most promptly for his regular customers. There was widespread opposition to the "butty-system" in the second half of the nineteenth century, the miners demanding direct employment on piece-work by the colliery companies, and by 1912 most hewers in charge of "stalls" were restricted to the employment on a time wage of one man and a boy. As a simple working arrangement, the system", always virtually exclusive to the Midlands, continued to operate there, though on a diminishing scale, until the early 1930's. It was peculiar to the "longwall" method of working, the "butty" contracting to work a particular longwall face and engaging and paying his men, at a day-rate, out of the contract terms with the company. A small "working master", he would spend some time hewing the coal himself to set the pace and expect his men to keep up to it. Any tonnage cut in excess of the minimum agreed was his profit. He was an envied, but never a popular, figure.
The miner's "stall" was his world underground, the limited length of the coalface, possibly as much as a mile's walk from the shaft, where, perhaps alone, perhaps with a colleague, he would spend his day, stopping only to wait for the shot-man, for a meal-break (usually twenty minutes) or for regulation visits from officials inspecting the roof and walls and testing for gas. Custom counted for much in the working of a colliery and the location of the "stall" would depend on the system favoured in a particular locality. "Pillar and Stall" and "Longwall" were the most widely used in 1912, although "Longwall" was rapidly displacing the older method. "Pillar and Stall", a survival from the earliest days of coal-mining, involved cutting the coal into rectangular blocks (or pillars) by means of "roads" driven out from the shaft towards the boundary and intersected by others at right angles. These large blocks were then reduced to smaller sections by a process known as "robbing the pillar" until, in a final dangerous operation, the last of the coal was removed and the roof allowed to subside. In "Longwall" the aim was to remove the whole of the seam in a single continuous operation, "Longwall advancing" working away from the shaft towards the boundary (so involving "road" maintenance until the coal was completely cleared), "Longwall retreating" working from the boundary to the shaft (the "roads" being driven deep into the coal and abandoned as the face was drawn back). The term "stall" was carried over into "Longwall" where it was peculiar to hand-cutting and filling, its discussion in the play indicating that this was a colliery still deeply imbued with tradition. Under both systems, maintenance of the "roads", clearance of "dirt" and speedy haulage of the coal was essential to safe and efficient working and, where the miners were on piece-rates, a living wage for the men. At a guinea a week, Mrs. Purdy's "mester" is unlikely to have worked a double shift-in any case unusual in 1912 — and, although in one contemporary opinion, "work on the roadways was far less laborious than hewing coal at the coalface", his "diry job o' nights" was probably road clearing and laying, hard, strenuous and unrewarding work over uneven ground. Moreover he would have suffered a deep hurt to his pride. The colliers or hewers were the elite of the mining community. Transferred from the coalface to menial, largely unskilled, work, whether as a labourer or "road-cod" or in the haulage, he would have felt the humiliation keenly.
I believe that accidents are pretty frequent', said a Staffordshire viewer, describing the system in the nineteenth century.
`The first process in this working is to dig out five or six feet at the bottom of the seam, but leaving a single strong pillar in the middle of the great mass of coal, which pillar they call the `man-of-war'; it is a square pillar, left in the middle of the side of work, about four or five yards square. It supports the immense mass of about 30 feet thick, like a pillar or pedestal of coal, The workmen then dig upwards all round the mass, making footholes on each side as they proceed upwards, forming a narrow niche, barely sufficient to allow them shoulder-room to get to work in. It frequently happens (I have not been in to experience it myself) I am informed, that one of the leaves of coal will give way and crush the bodies of those men in the niches, and that lives are lost in that manner. After they have proceeded to a certain height, the last operation is to remove the `man-of-war', which is done by passages driven through it horizontally. It then stands on four slender legs, which sometimes yield, and are crushed from the weight above. But if that should not happen, the workmen strike against the legs of this man-of-war, till they nibble and weaken them, so that they give way to the pressure, and down comes the mass together'.
Inevitably many lives were lost. Asked who warned the men of a fall of coal, a miner replied
The office of Colliery Manager today is not a sinecure; in fact, there are few positions where the duties are more onerous and responsible. To the youthful aspirant looking up from the bottom rungs of the mining ladder there is an attractive glamour surrounding the office, which engenders a healthy ambition in his breast. To the grey-headed worn-out veteran who becomes reminiscent, there is food for solemn reflection on perils escaped and victories won. The strikes of labour, the disasters of the mine from inrushes of water and explosions of fire-damp, the legal proceedings against recalcitrant workmen who risked their own and fellow-workers lives, enable him to realise to its fullest that `uneasy lies the head that wears a crown'.
How to Become a Colliery Manager, (Wigan, 1906) Price 2/6d.
Inquests were usually held in the local pub which would be convenient both in point of location and as the centre of the miners' corporate life — the Miners' Association `lodges', the Foresters and Oddfellows Societies (always strong in colliery districts), the monthly meetings of the local Welfare (Provident) or `Burial' Clubs all traditionally took place there. In addition most pubs had outbuildings where the bodies of the victims could be housed for viewing by the Coroner and Jury. One small boy living in a mining area at the time of the Lawrence plays recalls how he was excited by an unusual commotion at the local pub and crept round to the rear to see what had been happening. Peering through the keyhole of the locked door of one outbuilding he saw the body of a miner laid out on a table, the hands in particular dreadfully apparent. He slunk home, too terrified even to recount what he had seen and the sight remained with him vividly fifty years later.
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